Approximately three dozen protesters picketed the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office on Thursday demanding a moratorium on the deportation of jail inmates.
The group of activists, some of whom said they have been fasting for close to a week, called on the sheriff to stop participating in a federal deportation program while immigration laws are being negotiated in Congress.
Their hourlong demonstration came the same day the U.S. Senate approved a sweeping bill that would allow the nation's estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants to become U.S. citizens. The bill is expected to be taken up next in the House of Representatives.
"Future citizens are being deported," said Jesus Guzman, an organizer with the Graton Day Labor Center, of undocumented workers who get arrested and are turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Guzman and other protesters said that innocent people, or those arrested for very minor offenses, are being deported under the federal, jail-based Secure Communities program, only because they are undocumented.
"Two-thirds of the people deported in this country are people who are not being deported for criminal offenses," asserted Christy Lubin, vice president of the National Day Labor Organizing Network.
But Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials paint a different picture. They said that in a recent four-year period, the number of noncriminal immigrants declined and the number of convicted aliens deported nearly doubled.
In 2012, the agency said it deported 409,849 people with 55percent convicted of felonies or misdemeanors.
ICE officials say more than 90percent of the individuals removed last year fit into one of the following categories: convicted criminal aliens, immigration fugitives, recent border crossers and illegal re-entrants.
Assistant Sonoma County Sheriff Lorenzo Due?s, who met Thursday with the protesters, said the department is following the law and has no plans to change its policy.
"We're cooperating with federal agencies until we hear differently," he said.
When someone is arrested on suspicion of a misdemeanor or felony, Due?s said, their fingerprints are sent to the Department of Justice and ICE.
If immigration authorities request the individual be detained, the Sheriff's Office will give the federal agency 48 hours to pick the person up.
"We treat them the same as anyone else if ICE doesn't come within a certain amount of time," he said.
After 48 hours, Due?s said, they could bail out, be cited to appear in court or be held pending court proceedings.
The protesters said about 60to 70 individuals are being deported each month from Sonoma County, a figure ICE officials said was exaggerated.
Protesters said some undocumented workers have been detained for things like jaywalking, or simply being a passenger in a vehicle that was pulled over by police.
Because they had no valid identification, they are obliged to "deport voluntarily," said Juan Cuandon of Santa Rosa, one of those protesting Thursday.
The result, he said, is families get torn apart, with parents separated from their children.
But ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice said there have been approximately 30 removals a month from Sonoma County.
Since the Secure Communities program's inception in Sonoma County in March 2010, she said there have been 1,280 individuals removed.
Kice said the data indicates more than 960 of the individuals had prior criminal convictions, including 309 who had been convicted of "aggravated felonies," or two or more felonies.